“Forgive me father, for I know precisely what I’m doing!” -Jeff Tkachuk 8-31-2012
Yesterday I hit somewhat of an emotional low where my reserves of willpower were all but used up; a situation that Roy Baumeister refers to as “ego depletion.” My exhausted mind began to circle around various cynical thoughts and despairing conclusions in an attempt to make the outer world more closely resemble the feelings I was having: a clear recipe for a negative feedback loop or downward spiral. However, this post is an attempt to vent some of the latent (and justified) feelings I had, while salvaging something valuable from an otherwise futile exercise in depression.
The distracting daydream that intruded upon my attempt to study yesterday involved my walking up to Sam Harris, calmly introducing myself to him, and then pounding the ever-loving shit out of his face in the hopes that he would press charges or sue me. If he did so, he would essentially undermine every vague half-truth and pedantic bit of sophistry that feebly pretends to hold together his essay Free Will. It would be so beautifully ironic to expose his nearly heroic self-delusion and hypocrisy by calling his bluff and using his own argument in my legal defense. I would just tell him, the judge, and the jury that I had no choice; I was despondent and threatened by his manipulative assault on human dignity and just found myself fantasizing about kicking his ass, only to soon find myself pounding on him, much to my utter disbelief! I mean, wow…where did that come from? Though I have written plenty of vitriolic rants against this man–including this one!–how was I supposed to know that my mind would choose to do this? Its not like I have free will or anything; not like I can predict the movements of my own soul; not like I can know myself through introspection and then predict what I might think or do next! Its not like I should be held responsible for the violent thoughts I am just now entertaining and indulging! On what basis then would Harris implicate me in this crime and why would his own actions somehow be less relevant than mine? Wearing compassion as an affectation Harris pretends to eschew blame and punishment, endorsing imprisonment only to prevent future crimes, but if this truly is the only purpose, I must ask why we should not lock Harris up for inciting this and future violence, given that there are no “selves” to be blamed here? Sam Harris wants to absolve himself of all responsibility by essentially pleading “forgive me father, for I know not what I do.” I would like to knock this bullshit right out of his mouth while pleading “forgive me father, for I know precisely what I’m doing.” My guess is that he would submit to the ironic force of this argument.
How enormously satisfying it would be to get up in a public forum and facetiously blame the martial arts instructors who programmed this robot to execute such skillful violence; thereby showing how Harris is making a mockery of our judicial system by actually mocking our judicial system! How joyous I would be to see Sam Harris grapple with himself and question whether I deserved punishment or whether I could have done otherwise. I wouldn’t even mind going to jail, as I would see this as an act of civil disobedience in the service of lifting humanity back up to its proper heights. Most people spend a night in jail for far less noble motives where I would be rather proud of my incarceration. Even better, perhaps Sam Harris would grow wise to my gambit, stick to his rhetorical guns, and refrain from pressing charges, in which case I would get away with doing to him physically what his book aims to do to the human spirit intellectually and morally.
I have argued with enough Determinists in my day–the most trenchant of whom was actually myself from the ages of 15-22–that I am not very hopeful of swaying their opinions through argument; but perhaps I could get them to see the truth and moral depth of the concept of free will in a much simpler and more (*ahem) direct fashion. There is a long history of such rhetorical moves. I am reminded of a story told by Plutarch in which Themistocles, upon seeing that the Spartan Eurybiades is about to hit him with a staff, preemptively and proudly yells “strike, but hear me!” I would hope that Harris yells something similar while I teach him the meaning of philosophizing with a hammer, as this would give me the opportunity to reply that I hear him, but that human reasons carry no force in this world beholden to the laws of nature. Samuel Johnson argued vehemently against Berkley’s Idealism and denial of the material world. He famously kicked a stone and proclaimed “I refute him thus!” I picture using the same basic formula on a much more hypocritical object. Another person in this debate, upon hearing of Berkeley’s death from a riding accident, proclaimed that the good Bishop’s head had finally met with reality, and the result was fatal. In many ways I view the latter insult to be far more insidious and cruel, far less civilized even, than a swift right cross to the face. In reality a bruised ego or a demoralized self are far more painful wounds to receive than a black eye. How odd that people are allowed to send vile and damaging rhetoric out there into the public, but cannot walk around without a shirt on or hit someone for being an obnoxious loudmouth, as these actions would be “indecent” and a threat to the public. Truly bizarre.
Anyway, I have chosen, yes Sam, chosen, to dissipate some of my hatred and violent thoughts by writing this post, giving me much more power over them. I don’t know if this daydream will transpire, but I can do everything in my power beforehand, having had a glimpse of this possible future, to make it less likely. If I were to be completely honest, I would admit that it is totally within my control to either follow through with it or refrain. If you read a headline in the near future involving Sam Harris being physically assaulted, know that despite my public assertions to have had no choice, I actually take complete and preemptive responsibility for such an outcome. I know the reasons why I would do such a thing and I fully agree with them, but I also have good reasons for not doing it. That is, my actions are overdetermined; I have ample motivation to do two diametrically opposed things, and when two powerful motives reach a stalemate, small preemptive measures–like the veritable flap of the butterfly’s wings that is writing this post–can make all of the difference in the world.
My despairing moment was oddly catalyzed by reading an incredibly noble and truthful book by Roger Scruton, The Face of God, which I highly recommend. He includes a brilliant passage in this work that is my clarion call, difficult as it is to figure out realistic (and legal) ways to champion this fight for the human soul and for man’s dignity:
The philosophical truth, that our kind is not a biological category, is swept out of view by the evolutionary and neuroscientific picture of the human condition. It can be conjured back by stories, images and evocations, in something like the way that Milton conjured the truth of our condition from the raw materials of the Book of Genesis. Milton’s allegory is not just a portrait of our kind; it is an invitation to kindness. It shows us what we are, and what we must live up to. And it sets a standard for art. Take away religion, however; take away philosophy, take away the higher aims of art, and you deprive ordinary people of the ways in which they can represent their apartness. Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead. Biological reductionism nurtures this ‘living down’, which is why people so readily fall for it. It makes cynicism respectable and degeneracy chic. It abolishes our kind, and with it our kindness. -Roger Scruton
My ass-kicking art project would be an attempt to demonstrate to thinkers like Sam Harris what their picture of man actually looks like; to inform them that their intellectual sadism has consequences and removes our dignity and our kindness. It would be an attempt to punish Harris like a pet owner scolding a puppy; to rub his face in the inhumanity and unkindness of his little brain droppings. What reason do I have to restrain myself if he claims that no such restraint is possible and that my self doesn’t even exist? What reason do I have for acting humanely when I am merely an animal who has just been disabused of any pretensions to a higher nobility? What could any animal do with such a loss of face but shoot the messenger? I scarcely see a choice open to him, but who knows; perhaps one will simply occur to him at the last second, saving Harris from a savage beating.